October 2003

Erik Ferguson

fiction

The Iron Wagon by Jason

If you've never read a Norwegian graphic novella, or if you're looking for another to add to your collection, Jason's The Iron Wagon is an option available to you. Reworking fellow Norwegian Stein Riverton's 1909 detective novel of the same name, Jason (no last name is given) employs some sly misdirection to keep the reader slightly off-balance until the big reveal.

Flexing some in media res, the story begins in a cabin, where the central character (it's stretching to call him a protagonist) is disturbed late at night by the ghost of...someone. Since no name is given for the central character, and since he is portrayed as a rabbit, I will henceforth refer to him as Mr. Rabbit. Mr. Rabbit attempts to shoot the ghost, but the gun is not loaded. Understandably disturbed, Mr. Rabbit passes out onto the floor.

The reader is shifted to events that transpired before Mr. Rabbit's freak-out. Mr. Rabbit is a writer visiting a hotel in Hvaler for a break from the bustling metropolis that was Kristiania, now known as Oslo. Mr. Rabbit socializes with a game warden and a student, both interested in the same kind of relaxation and restoration. And there are, of course, the ladies of Hvaler, one of which, Hilde Gjaernes, Mr. Rabbit finds particularly alluring.

One evening, Mr. Rabbit goes to play some chess with Miss Gjaernes's brother, but he is given the unceremonious boot by her butler. Ever persistent, Mr. Rabbit hangs around the backyard among the trees and spies Game Warden Blinde and Hilde bidding each other a fond adieu. While walking along the moors, perhaps bemoaning his fate, Mr. Rabbit hears a strange racket, like chains rattling, and encounters a bush-lurker who explains that it is the grind of the Iron Wagon, a local omen of impending doom. The Iron Wagon leaves no tracks and has never been seen, but some say that it is hidden on the Gjaernes' farm. Mr. Rabbit is left to ponder the voracity of such a crazy pastoral myth.

Well, damned if Game Warden Blinde doesn't turn up dead the next morning. Enter Detective Krag, a big city sleuth whose job it is to determine who killed Blinde: Hilde's brother, who disapproved of her sister's suitor and who has some secrets of his own he'd like to keep; Mr. Rabbit, who was known to have been in the vicinity of the murder; or that damned mysterious Iron Wagon.

Given the story's first three pages, it doesn't seem like there's much to solve. Granted, Detective Krag didn't see Mr. Rabbit reaction to Blinde's ghost, but the reader is faced with overwhelming evidence that Mr. Rabbit is guilty. The story, to its credit, introduces enough plausible suspects to force the reader to question such snap judgments, and the circumstances that lead to the murderer's apprehension are a genuine surprise. At one point in the middle of the story, Mr. Rabbit asks the detective if he knows the murderer's identity. The cocky Krag boasts, "I could point him out anytime I desired. Pass the jam?" As the story progresses, the question becomes "how long will Krag make the murderer stew?" instead of "whodunnit?" It gets a little tense.

As mentioned before, Mr. Rabbit is a rabbit, and the other characters are a mix of, by my best guess, dogs, cats, and crows. This is an interesting way of avoiding reader prejudice, unless you still hold all bunnies accountable for Bunnicula. A few of the characters bear striking resemblances to each other, which Jason uses to the story's advantage.

The story is told in three colors: black, white, and dried blood, with a few flashbacks told only in black-and-white. This reduced spectrum, combined with a prevalence of traditional six-panel pages, creates a peaceful, controlled read, in contrast to the subject matter. Jason uses a neat trick on a page in which the dialogue of other characters is cropped out by the panel, illustrating both Mr. Rabbit's distraction and the connection between printed words and the voice in the reader's head. Other than some unusual scene transitions that occur in the middle of the page, rather than at the bottom-right panel, the story is easily followed by even the most comic-illiterate.

...Which begs the question, is it worth following? I am unfamiliar with the original novel, so I am unsure how much of the story's structure is Jason's touch. The story is better read as an exploration of the behavior of the guilty, the logisitics of the perfect crime, and the sick pleasure some (like my parents) get from watching the guilty stew before they are officially accused. When it comes to the murder plot, The Iron Wagon isn't much of a mystery at all.

The Iron Wagon by Jason
Fantagraphics Press
ISBN: 1560975415
72 pages